Lights were still twinkling in the Caribbean capital of Barbados when the crew of the Mirpuri Foundation yacht spotted dry land after six and a half days crossing the ocean. In the silence of the early hours on that Sunday, 5 February 2017, skipper Paulo Mirpuri successfully completed his first ocean crossing on board a racing yacht (a VOR70, the fastest monohull ever built for the Volvo Ocean Race fleet).

Gliding over the calm, blue water, with its international crew lining the deck, lit by the first rays of sun, the yacht Mirpuri Foundation completed more than 2400 miles of transatlantic sailing in six and a half days (160 hours) and gently sailed in to the Shallow Draught dock, the only anchorage with capacity for the VOR70 yacht, which has an overall length of 21 metres and draught of 4.5 metres, due to its canting keel with bulb.

Smiles of pleasure accompanied the mooring manoeuvres at the jetty. The expressions of skipper Paulo Mirpuri, his brother Luís Mirpuri, the guests on board – CEOs of major international companies – and the professional crew hired reflected their pride in having completed an exciting voyage during which they faced challenging winds and seas for much of the route.

On land, more smiles awaited the sailors – on the faces of their families, of the journalists present to report on the achievement and of the local authorities, content to welcome another yacht to this island of countless sailing stories, especially that of the Portuguese sailor and explorer Pedro Campos, who stopped here in 1536 and was probably the first European to step on the island, the Spanish having only marked its position on charts in 1511.

The crossing that had begun with strong gusts of wind (over 40 knots) in Porto Grande in Mindelo, on the island of São Vicente, Cape Verde, was now completed in the calm waters of the Caribbean, on a sunny Sunday morning. At a different pace – the pace of arrival on dry land –, the crew moved around on the deck skilfully and smoothly, throwing the mooring lines on to the jetty and also preparing the boat for a deserved rest.

Customs formalities were swiftly and efficiently completed by the officials who came on purpose to receive the crew of the Mirpuri Foundation. Representatives from Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. also came to greet the skipper and crew, extending a warm welcome to Barbados.

“When we set sail from Cape Verde, we were very happy and we had an ideal mission in mind. Now we are even happier at having achieved our aim of crossing the North Atlantic on board a racing yacht like the VOR70. The route of more than 2400 miles was completed in less than seven days (equivalent to 160 hours) under difficult weather conditions, with strong winds and towering seas”, skipper Paulo Mirpuri said as soon as he stepped ashore.

And it was with enthusiasm and joy that Paulo Mirpuri answered questions from the international journalists present, eager to hear about his future plans for the Save the Ocean – Mirpuri Foundation programme, an initiative that includes not only this transatlantic crossing, but also a range of projects to preserve the oceans and marine species in various different communities, such as Cape Verde and Barbados, and especially the creation of the first Portuguese crew to take part in a major international ocean racing event in 2020.

“I confirm that it is our intention to organise the first Portuguese team to take part in the Volvo Ocean Race 2020. We have not yet decided whether it will be an all-female or all-male crew, but our preference is for a female crew. We hope to announce the project mid-way through this year and begin the training programme in the next three years”, the Portuguese skipper revealed.

“This first experience of mine in an ocean crossing taught me many things, especially the importance of team spirit and of union within the crew on board. Now I know exactly how to select Portuguese sailors for the future Mirpuri Foundation team in the Volvo Ocean Race 2020 and I will be personally involved in selecting the male and female teams that we want to train, to later decide on the final crew”, Paulo Mirpuri told journalists at the press conference in Barbados.

“I realised how important a person’s psychological condition is on board a racing yacht. As well as being excellent sailors on a technical level, future crew members for the Mirpuri Foundation project in the Volvo Ocean Race 2020 will have to have very important personality traits: mutual respect, team spirit, mutual aid, self-sacrifice, generosity, camaraderie, self-control, altruism and a non-confrontational profile”.

“The crew members of this future sailing project will be the ambassadors of the Mirpuri Foundation and, as such, must take its message, ‘for a better world’, and the values dear to the foundation – courage, ethics, team spirit, innovation, technology and professionalism”, explained Mirpuri, also recalling the many physical and mental demands of a round-the-world race, the importance of diet and of management of sleep and stress.

Indeed, the union and team spirit on board the Mirpuri Foundation were revealed on the very first night of the crossing. “It was the first time that we sailed together, although the four guests had knowledge of sailing and the official crew was professional, with the huge experience of the co-skipper and owner of the boat, the Austrian Johannes Schwarz, and the crew manager, the Italian sailor Enrico Civello”.

With 10 nationalities on board and 13 different backgrounds, as well as a wide range of ages, with one guest who was 70 years old, others in their 50s and young crew members aged 20 to 24, the Mirpuri Foundation crew was quite eclectic.

 “They were all there working side by side, treating each other as equals, learning from each other and eating from the same plate. This represents the true human experience of sailing, of the special contact with the boat and with the ocean”, said Mirpuri, certain that the message transmitted in the video Save the Ocean, from the Mirpuri Foundation’s ocean conservation programme, at the press conference in Cape Verde, imbued the team with the necessary sense of altruism and ideals for the transatlantic crossing and its difficulties.


A briefing before setting sail from Cape Verde

At the briefing that skipper Paulo Mirpuri and co-skipper Johannes Schwarz held with the crew in the first few minutes after setting off from Cape Verde, both analysed the weather conditions – winds forecast and state of the sea – and decided on a course strategy. “We thought that we would need to jibe twice before reaching our destination in Barbados. We would sail on a starboard tack until half way and then change to a port tack. This tactic was maintained in the first two days of sailing, when we sailed on the same tack. Then we had to start jibing, because the wind veered 30º, forcing us to change our course”.

The crew manager, Enrico Civello, also explained how the watches would work (Group A – Paulo Mirpuri, Filip Pietrzak, Gerwin Jansen, Giulio Canale and one of the guests; Group B – Johannes Schwarz, Bram Vanderbiest, Luca Salerno, Luís Mirpuri and two guests), with the cook Gianni Iura not included in the watches, due to the nature of his work on board, but helping with the helm and on deck whenever possible.

Thus, each group would work four-hour shifts on deck at night (18.00-22.00, 22.00-02.00 and 02.00-06.00) and six-hour shifts during the day (06.00-12.00 and 12.00-18.00), making up two shifts in 24 hours, which gave each crew member at least six hours’ rest a day.

Enrico also explained how the sailors would be fed each day – there would be breakfast (with yoghurt, sandwiches and fruit) and during the day fruits, sandwiches and snacks would be freely available, but to be consumed with discretion, so that everyone could have their fair share according to their needs. Civello also advised the crew to moderate their use of plastic bottles, which should be reused for daily drinking water.

The diet on board included just one hot meal a day, with a pasta or rice dish, accompanied by vegetables or canned food, which Gianni prepared with incredible dexterity and good humour in a tiny kitchen as the yacht pitched and tossed. “To manage to cook for 13 people with the boat climbing eight-metre waves, at speeds of 30 knots, is a real feat and we are thankful to Gianni for his ability to keep us fed”, the Portuguese skipper later said.


First night with rough weather and astonishing speeds

The east-northeast winds reached speeds of more than 40 knots during the first night of the crossing and the Mirpuri Foundation yacht flew along at a speed of between 22 and 26 knots, on a sea with waves more than five metres high, travelling 300 miles in just one night.

It was in the darkness before daybreak that the crew faced its first incident on board, when the large A4 gennaker sail ripped under 40-knot winds and waves seven to eight metres high. Unity and team spirit were immediately apparent.

“All the crew members, even those who were resting, came on to the deck swept by waves to help solve the situation quickly and safely”, said the skipper, confessing that the group on watch that night had perhaps been a bit too enthusiastic with the incredible performance of the boat (which reached a top speed of 30 knots!) and decided to maintain a sail area larger than was advisable in those wind and sea conditions.

After this true test of the team’s readiness and responsiveness, the crossing continued at breakneck pace with the yacht sailing at an average speed of 18 knots, occasionally reaching 32 knots, with 22-knot east-northeast winds and rough seas with waves between five and seven metres high.

Shifts at the helm were a mixture of intense concentration and pure adrenalin. Grasping the wheel, each one of the skilled and experienced crew members – Enrico Civello, Gerwin Jansen, Bram Vanderbiest, Filip Pietrzak, Gianni Iura and Paulo Mirpuri, – surfed the high waves at great speed, delighting in the incredible performance of a racing yacht with such a fine pedigree. It is the fastest monohull yacht class ever built and during the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-2009, Ericsson 4, the eventual winner of that race, skippered by the Brazilian five-time Olympic medallist Torben Grael broke the 24-hour sailing record with 596.6 miles sailed, at an average speed of 24.8 knots.

With waves sweeping the entire deck, invading every space on board and drenching the waterproofs clothing of the crew, the sailing was challenging for every watch. In one of his reports via satellite, co-skipper Johannes Schwarz explained the team’s performance. “In two days, we have already covered 700 miles since leaving Cape Verde last Sunday afternoon and now there are just 1,330 miles to Barbados. We still don’t know for sure if we’re going to have to manoeuvre in order to not get too far south on the route, but we’ll only know better about this tomorrow or later”, said the Austrian yachtsman, although this calculation did not consider the great waves that would add another 5% to the miles sailed, and the manoeuvres to change course for Barbados, which would lead to a total of more than 2400 thousand miles.


In the middle of the North Atlantic

In just three days of sailing, the Mirpuri Foundation yacht had sailed half of its course across the North Atlantic, travelling 1060 of the 2000 miles initially envisaged. With the trade winds blowing steady at around 20 knots from east-northeast, the boat was sailing downwind, at an average speed of 18 knots and a top speed of 26 knots.

Life on board proceeded as normal, despite the demands of the work and physical effort of the activities on deck. The routine was already established and the groups of sailors took their turn at the helm, trimming the sails and operating the grinder winches, while Paulo Mirpuri and Johannes Schwarz decided on the sailing tactics and analysed the meteorological data received by satellite. The on-board reporter, Giulio Canale, didn’t miss a moment on board, recording the activities on deck and seascapes with Go Pro and Fuji cameras.

The days passed at the rhythm of the watches, with the morning group relieving the night group at 06.00, exchanging technical information on the weather conditions, the performance of the boat and course instructions for the next hours. The sailors ending their watch took the opportunity to grab a quick breakfast before resting a few hours in the narrow bunks lining the cabin. The constant movement of the boat, the noise of the waves and wind and also the sound of the grinder winches turning as the sails were trimmed made deep sleep almost impossible.

Meanwhile, the scene outside was too spectacular to miss. Incredibly blue sky, an ocean with perfect waves and favourable winds called the sailors on deck to witness the beauty, balance and speed of a racing machine like the VOR70. The only detail absent from the perfect ocean setting was marine life.

“We didn’t see whales or fish – apart from the flying fish typical of these tropical latitudes. We only spotted a pair of dolphins a couple of times. However, we also didn’t spot any sign of pollution, but we know that it exists in great quantities in many areas of the ocean worldwide”, noted Paulo Mirpuri, always recalling the cause to which he is committed with the Save the Ocean – Mirpuri Foundation programme.

On this third day of sailing, the crew had to prepare for the first manoeuvre to set the course for Barbados – a jibe, the complex operation with the A9 headsail, which required the presence of eight crew members on deck, including Luís Mirpuri, the skipper’s brother.

“The manoeuvre was carried out calmly, with easterly winds of 22 knots and a quieter sea, with waves between two and four metres high. As we are closer to land, we are already noticing the presence of lower clouds in the sky and an increase in the air temperature. The weather forecast indicates that we will have lighter winds as we approach the coast of Barbados”, skipper Paulo Mirpuri said at the time.

The weather conditions did not fail them and the next two days were mild, inviting the crew to relax a bit on board. The routine of the watches and the boat’s performance naturally continued, but the mood on board became more informal, with the sailors barefoot and shirtless, and the guests calmly resting on the deck now free from the waves that had swept it constantly in the previous days. An atmosphere of tranquillity and ease took over the boat and some notes of music could even be heard on board.

Sitting on the fenders – transformed into comfortable on-board sofas –, some crew members wrote, others read or even exercised on the deck – including the skipper’s brother Luís, who did his usual push ups –, while others simply relaxed in the sun. The young Italian sailors Enrico, Gianni and Luca amused themselves by chatting about the next regattas in the Caribbean. Otherwise, it was the pure enjoyment of feeling the wind in one’s face and revelling in sailing driven by trade winds under a beautiful blue sky.

To mark a traditional initiation rite on ocean crossings, the youngest sailor, Luca Salerno, was the target of teasing by veteran sailors. He was lightly tied to the pedestal of one of the grinder winches on the deck and duly threatened with various punishments – including eating an unpalatable mess –, and then a lock of his hair was cut off and thrown into the ocean, as a sacrifice in honour of Neptune. It was one of the most memorable moments on board, a sign that they were about to reach Barbados.

For skipper Paulo Mirpuri, this Atlantic crossing was something that will remain in his memory for ever. “There are positive factors, such as technical aspects – for example, the different trims of the sails that deliver a formidable performance. Also the number of sails on board (between 12 and 14) was something that amazed me, since I’m not accustomed to such a varied selection when sailing cruiser yachts. The VOR70 is indeed faster than the wind and truly represented an incredible experience for me. This was also an opportunity to explore the performance of the VOR70, which has even sailed 500 miles in 24 hours”.

On the other hand, Paulo Mirpuri mentioned the harsh living conditions on board a racing yacht – space is very limited, the bunks are small and uncomfortable, the toilet facilities are basic and used by all the crew, the kitchen is very simple, with just one tiny stove. All this was a contrast for those who are more accustomed to cruiser yachts, with individual cabins and other comforts on board.

Despite this contrast between what the Portuguese skipper knew from cruiser yachts and what he experienced on board a VOR70 racing yacht, the trip revealed other highly gratifying discoveries. “When well handled and balanced, its performance in wind and waves is amazing. At the helm, we have a sense of great stability and we can surf the waves with confidence, even with the bow diving into the waves”. 

“When we had to make the second series of jibes to adjust our course straight for Barbados, half way through the crossing, we broke a mainsail batten. But we had already got to know the boat and we understood its limits”, said Mirpuri, specifying that the incredible speed of the yacht on the first two days of the crossing (averages of around 18 knots and top speeds of 32 knots) slowed down in the second half of the crossing due to the instability of the winds and the rough seas.

After the incident during the first night – when the foresail ripped –, the crew settled down into the routine of life on board, divided into two groups that stood day and night watches. “As the skipper, I wasn’t in any of the watch groups, but I worked with both day and night watches, depending on the most important decisions to be taken. I shared many hours with Johannes at the navigation table and, in fact, I worked a total of 17 hours a day, with just seven hours rest each night”.

“The VOR 70 is very sensitive, capable of accelerating or decelerating at the slightest trimming of the sails, daggerboards as well as the precision at the helm. The organisation of the watches on deck worked very well, with six hours of work during the day and four hours at night, with the crew divided into two groups”, explained Enrico Civello, the crew manager.

When the watches changed during the day, the team took the opportunity to turn on the generator and charge batteries for the navigation equipment and satellite telephone – the only connection with dry land. “It was difficult to align with the satellite position and many of the calls that we managed to make were interrupted or abruptly cut off”.

Otherwise, on the deck swept by water, the hours were spent concentrating at the helm, accompanying the rhythm of the great waves – which varied between four and eight metres in height throughout the crossing –, adjusting the trim of the sails and the yacht’s performance. While the analysis and updating of the weather charts, assessing the previous day’s course and readjusting the details of the course for the next day, were the tasks carried out every day by skipper Paulo Mirpuri, co-skipper Johannes Schwarz and crew manager Enrico Civello.

By the end of six and a half days, all the sailors had lost between three and five kilos in weight and some crew members had a few minor health complaints – an infected nail and hand, and a burn – promptly treated by the skipper, who is also a physician.

Another mishap was using too much water in the kitchen and bathroom. “Due to lack of experience of transatlantic sailing, we used too much water in the first two days and during the rest of the voyage we used seawater to wash the dishes”, said Paulo Mirpuri, adding that, even when faced with this problem, the team morale on board was always good.

The last days of sailing were the hardest, with unstable winds between 12 and 16 knots and waves constantly eight metres high – a reflection of the bad weather that stormed Europe in early February. At 150 miles from Barbados, the team had to repeatedly jibe to keep its course, balancing the variation in strength and direction of the winds and the state of the sea.

Enrico Civello told us that this ocean crossing was a lesson for them all. “We had strong wind and big seas, which provided an exciting experience for the guests on board. The trip was good, the power of the boat is evident and we always sailed safely. We were so well positioned in the trade winds that we travelled 1,200 miles on the same tack during two days (representing more than half of the 2,400-mile route from Cape Verde to Barbados)”.

“As the crew manager in this project, I am really satisfied with this ocean experience. The team comprised young professional sailors from six countries, all totally committed to fast, safe and fun sailing of the boat, these being the three most important ingredients to enjoy time on board any sailboat. When we sail a top-level racing boat, where things can happen really fast, team spirit is essential to prepare and coordinate manoeuvres. The union within the team was always excellent and its performance was spectacular. Sailing is a marvellous world, with thousands of variables, including human and social aspects, that are often more important than sports qualifications”.


Barbados, a long history connected to the sea

Although the location of Barbados appeared for the first time on Spanish maps in 1511 and it was referred to by the Spanish King Fernando II as Los Barbudos, it was only in 1519 that it appeared in its correct position and with the name Barbados on a map produced by the Genoese cartographer Visconte Maggiolo.

It is believed, however, that the Portuguese sailor and explorer Pedro Campos, on his voyage to Brazil, in 1536, was the first to stop off on Barbados, introducing pigs to the island, in order to provide food for the voyage home. According to various theories about the region, it was Campos who gave the island its name, probably inspired by the aerial roots of the many fig trees growing on the island, which resemble long beards.

Another possible origin for the name of the island was the beards of the indigenous Caribs (a people from the mainland of South America, who expelled the native Arawaks) or, more poetically, the sea foam formed by the waves crashing into the coral reefs of its coast.

Pedro Campos did not colonise the island or set up any form of settlement, but the Portuguese sailors visited the island frequently for several decades (1536-1625), as a stopover on their way to Brazil, until the first English ship arrived in Barbados in 1624 and its colonisation by the British began in 1627. 

Barbados gained international fame, however, with the planting of sugar cane introduced by a large group of Sephardic Jews from Brazil who arrived on the island in 1654, bringing the knowledge needed to produce sugar, the foundation of the island’s wealth for the 300 years of British colonisation and domination.

And the history of Barbados still has a treasure from that era – Mount Gay Rum, originally known among Barbadians as Kill-Devil, has been a pure product of the island since 1703. A respectable businessman, Sir John Gay, was invited by his friend Sir John Sober to manage an old distillery and so began the story of the most prestigious rum in the Caribbean.

Sailing ships brought exotic goods from the colonies to Europe and North America, and Mount Gay Rum was highly coveted. Brought directly from Bridgetown – the capital of Barbados and one of the oldest ports in the Caribbean –, bottles and barrels of Mount Gay Rum became the ultimate proof of a successful voyage to the Caribbean for any sailor, and that was how the connection between sailors and rum began.

Mount Gay Rum has not let this connection drop and in the last 30 years it has sponsored more than 150 regattas worldwide. Today, Mount Gay is a highly respected brand in the sailing world and to have a Mount Gay Rum Red Cap is a symbol of accomplishment in the international sailing community – a valuable gift that skipper Paulo Mirpuri can now add to his collection of sailing achievements.


Setting sail from Cape Verde

The Mirpuri Foundation set sail from Cape Verde at dusk, after almost a whole day of celebrations in the city of Mindelo – starting first thing in the morning with tours of the boat by local authorities – including Commander José Pedro Mariano of the Ports of Cape Verde (ENAPOR) and Astragilda Almeida, manager of Safeport (co-sponsors) –, by children from the Tia Maria Cristina Association, on the island of Salamansa, and by a group of fishermen from the Salamansa Fishermen’s Association, especially the oldest of all, Manuel Teodoro Bandeira, 97 years old and retired, and Antonio Luís Fontes, 82 years and still working.

A special lunch in the restaurant Dokas brought together all the guests and preceded the mass and blessing of the crew at the church of Nossa Senhora da Luz in São Vicente, celebrated by the Vicar General of the Diocese, Pedro Borges. Then the crew paraded through the streets, accompanied by the Batucada Mick Lima and Mandingas do Mindelo groups, besides Carnival dancers and musicians, who, to a pulsating rhythm, dragged the guests and even some tourists along the whole waterfront to the shipping port, where the Vicar Pedro Borges blessed the yacht Mirpuri Foundation.

A well-attended press conference in the morning was the ideal occasion to present the message of the Mirpuri Foundation regarding the preservation of the oceans. “This ocean crossing will promote the work of the Mirpuri Foundation and the choice of Cape Verde as a starting point for this voyage was not by chance, as we know that a substantial part of the island’s economy is based on the oceans, with artisanal fishing, and we would like to draw the local authorities’ attention to the importance of being more closely involved in the preservation of this universal heritage that is the ocean”, said Paulo Mirpuri.

This message was clearly conveyed by the presentation of the video Eleven hour wake-up call – Save the Ocean Program, which the Mirpuri Foundation prepared with other foundations to make as many people as possible aware of the issue of preserving the oceans for future generations.

From a local perspective, the Portuguese diver Nuno Marques da Silva, with 28 years of experience in the seas of Cape Verde, spoke about Artificial Reefs in Cape Verde, an important initiative that aims to restore areas of fish and coral habitats on the seabed, already small (just 5 to 10% of the seabed) and devastated by overfishing, especially trawling and illegal fishing.

The main idea is to introduce artificial reefs made of concrete blocks or hulls of old ships that can be placed on the seabed in strategic locations, near the few existing natural reefs, to repopulate the area with different species of fish, thus creating a network of reefs that can even interlink parts of the African coast. The experiment began in 2006 and has already shown promising results – in the two ships scuttled, the reappearance of fish occurred within two to six months.

The captain of the Maritime and Port Authority in Mindelo, Antonio Monteiro, also made his contribution with words of encouragement and support for the crew of the Mirpuri Foundation, as did the president of the National Institute of Fisheries Development in Cape Verde, Osvaldina Duarte da Silva, who highlighted the importance of the diversity of marine life around the islands and announced the creation of the Oceanographic Institute.

The fisherman Auxílio Matias, president of the Salamansa Fishermen’s Association, confessed that he was disturbed when he realised the scale of the destruction of coral reefs. He added that there is also a need to consider fuel pollution by ships on the surface of Cape Verde waters, calling on local authorities to create protective measures against vessels from other countries that pollute Cape Verde seas, where local fishermen only use artisanal fishing methods.

Taking the lead from these statements from the veteran fisherman and questions from the local press, skipper Paulo Mirpuri confirmed the intention of the Mirpuri Foundation to work with governments and the business community to find possible solutions to these problems, including also a responsible attitude on the part of the fishing industry, which will be to the benefit of all. And one of the local initiatives already under way is precisely the support for research work such as that developed by diver Nuno Marques da Silva, director of the Manta Diving Center on the island of Sal.

After the mass and the crew’s parade through the streets of Mindelo and the blessing of the boat by the Vicar Pedro Mendes, the team was ready to set sail. With departing hugs and smiles, the sailors went on board and waved to the onlookers on the quay.

In a synchronised movement, the sailors began the manoeuvres of slipping moorings and in a trice they left the dock and ventured into the bay under strong winds, while hoisting the mainsail and preparing to face a first restless night, with winds around 30 knots and a rough sea with waves three to five metres high. “The weather conditions are perfect, with a high-pressure system stationary in the middle of the North Atlantic, producing a steady stream of northeastern trade winds that will allow downwind sailing virtually all the way to Barbados”, explained co-skipper and project manager Johannes Schwarz before setting sail.


Cape Verde, the Atlantic islands with a soft Portuguese accent

There is an important link between this transatlantic crossing by the Mirpuri Foundation yacht and the history of Cape Verde, since it was there that, in 1922, the Portuguese aviators Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral made one of their stops during the first crossing of the South Atlantic, in celebration of the First Centenary of the Independence of Brazil.

A monument by the sculptor João Cutileiro offered to the city of Mindelo by the National Commission for the Commemoration of Portuguese Discoveries – on the 500th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas, on 20 July 1994 – marks the importance of this event. 

The eventful journey began in Lisbon, on 30 March 1922, on board the single-engine seaplane Lusitânia. The pilot Sacadura Cabral and navigator Gago Coutinho – who created an artificial horizon by adapting a sextant in order to measure the height of the stars, thus inventing the modern celestial navigation that would revolutionise flight navigation at the time – travelled 8383 km in 79 days, although the total flight time was only 62 hours.

The first stop in the Canaries was successful, although the aviators noted that their fuel consumption was too high. From there to the island of São Vicente, they travelled 1700 km, then spending at least 10 days on the island to make repairs to their seaplane, since its floats were leaking.

Departing from the port of Praia, on the island of Santiago, the airmen headed for the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago, off the northeast of Brazil, where they ditched in rough seas that damaged one of the Lusitânia’s floats. Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral had to be picked up by a Portuguese Navy cruiser, that took them to the island of Fernando de Noronha, off the northeast coast of Brazil. After yet more incidents, the two Portuguese aviators finally completed not just the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic, but also, for the first time in the history of aviation, a flight over the Atlantic Ocean with only the assistance of celestial navigation from the aircraft.


The sea-ocean, a historic bond

“Once the world was created, God realised that he still had a bit of earth between his fingers. He shook them and some small fragments fell onto the ocean. That is how the ten islands of Cape Verde were born” (Cape Verde legend).It appears that Portuguese explorers discovered and colonised the uninhabited islands in the 15th century, creating the first European settlement in the tropics. With its excellent location for Atlantic sailing, the archipelago prospered and even attracted corsairs and pirates, including Sir Francis Drake, in the 1580s, and later the famous British naturalist Charles Darwin, during his 1832 expedition.

But the discovery of Cape Verde is still debated by historians, since some attribute the command of the first expedition to the Venetian Cadamosto, in 1460, the year of Henry the Navigator’s death, while others mention the Genoese António da Noli, based on the Royal Letter of 19 September 1462, which made express mention of the discovery of the 12 islands: “[…] five by António da Noli, during the lifetime of Prince Henry, my uncle, may God bless him, which are called: island of Santiago and island of Sam Filipe, and the islands of Mayas and the island of Mayas and the island of S. Christovam and the island of Sal which are in the parts of Guinea […]”.

At the end of 1461 or in the early months of 1462, during a new expedition, the Portuguese explorer Diogo Afonso sighted the islands Brava, São Nicolau, Santa Luzia, Santo Antão and São Vicente and the islets Raso and Branco.The strong relationship with Portugal is further demonstrated by the presence of a replica of the Belém Tower on the Avenida Marginal – close to the sea and next to the fish market, on the beach of Porto Grande.

Built for the Port Authority of the Porto Grande of Mindelo, between 1929 and 1937, the Belém Tower of São Vicente was restored in 1997 and 2009 and reopened in 2010, on the date commemorating the 35th anniversary of the political emancipation of the former Portuguese colony and 550th anniversary of the arrival of Portuguese sailors on the islands.

Around it, the beat of local rhythms – of morna, coladeira, funaná, tabanca and batuque – accompanies the everyday hustle and bustle of the city and the voices of the Uril players in the square nearby, with laughter from the locals at the Boca de Tubarão tavern, the activity of the fish sellers in the market and the colourful clothes of the many children playing, running around and shrieking, against the backdrop of the city and the ocean, swept by the strong winter wind.

Inside the Belém Tower of São Vicente, the history and characteristics of the archipelago are retold step by step, starting with its marine biodiversity and emphasising the maritime heritage shared with New Bedford, Massachusetts, USA, since many Cape Verdians are descended from sailors who left for New Bedford on whalers in the mid-19th century, then the centre of world whaling industry, crucial for lighting the world for three hundred years.

New Bedford whalers sailed the oceans of the world, but initially their voyages were restricted to the Atlantic, on a route that included the West Indies, the Azores – where the whalers took on food, fresh water and more crew –, then moving on to Cape Verde and the west coast of Africa, before crossing the South Atlantic, heading for the coast of Brazil or the Falkland Islands.

An important symbol of Cape Verdian emigration to the USA is the schooner Ernestina, the last sailing ship, in regular service, to carry Cape Verdian emigrants across the Atlantic to the United States. The schooner was offered as a gift to the USA by the newly independent Republic of Cape Verde and a crew of Cape Verdians and Americans sailed the Ernestina back to New England in 1982.

To add another myth to the history of the archipelago, it may be recalled that one of the Twelve Labours of Hercules was to steal golden apples from the Hesperides. And according to the legend, the blood spilt by Ladon (killed by Atlas to his request while he held the sky on his shoulders in place of the titan), spread through the Garden of the Hesperides and from it was born the dragon tree (Dracaena draco), the sap of which is known on some islands as “dragon’s blood”. The archipelago of Cape Verde is an ideal habitat for this tree, which is endangered, and its name appears in one of the highest decorations of Cape Verde – the Ordem do Dragoeiro. 


Journalist and author – Nysse Arruda

Photo: David Branigan